Review | Boo, Neil Smith

23012503On the first week of school in 1979, thirteen year old Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple dies in front of his locker while reciting the periodic table. A shy, socially awkward aspiring scientist, Boo wakes up in Town, a bit of heaven populated by thirteen year olds. A few days later, he is joined by his classmate Johnny, a friendly popular boy who reveals that both he and Boo had been killed by a school shooter.

Despite technically beginning with death, Boo started out almost whimsically. It was fascinating to see Neil Smith’s vision of heaven for thirteen year olds, and it was great to see Boo, who was friendless on earth, fitting in with the other souls in Town. There’s something reassuring about having an afterlife that’s so similar to our own world, yet there’s also something disquieting about how the old souls (thirteen year olds who’ve been in Town for decades) act older (some of the female souls are referred to as “mothers), yet are still kept childlike in some ways, dependent on god (called “Zig” in Boo’s narration) to provide the basic necessities. Once in a while, something discordant arrives, like a photocopier, and the teens are left to wonder what Zig wants them to do with it.

This foray into a thirteen year old heaven is what I expected when I began the book, and if it remained on that storyline, with perhaps a romance or two sprinkled in, I would have called Boo charming, a fun, entertaining read.

But the story gets darker, much more disturbing than I expected from a YA book, and so much more powerful because of it. It begins with Johnny’s revelation that he and Boo were killed by a school shooter, who had then killed himself. Then the question: what if “Gunboy” had been reborn in Town as well? Haunted by nightmares of the shooting, Johnny becomes obsessed with this possibility, and takes Boo with him on a quest to track down their killer. The story then turns into a very Lord of the Flies type tale, with the Town residents cobbling together their own law enforcement and justice systems. In the afterlife, what could possibly be a fitting punishment for murder? And how far can a desire for revenge go before it descends into madness?

The search for Gunboy and the ensuing trial are among the book’s most disquieting scenes. The Town’s other murder victims see their own desire for justice in Johnny and Boo’s situation. In a particularly chilling moment, while discussing what to do with Gunboy, someone mentions that the other murder victims don’t just see Gunboy, they see their own murderers and abusers, the people in their own lives who caused their deaths and towards whom they are powerless to exact revenge.

And still the story progresses beyond this Lord of the Flies stage. We eventually do learn more about Gunboy, but more than that, we learn about Boo and Johnny and the lives they led before these were so violently cut short. We learn about inner demons, voices in people’s heads who say things people don’t want to hear. We learn about loneliness, and alienation, and all the things that at thirteen, we desperately want to believe “gets better” over time. And above all, we learn about friendship, about the power of a kind word to resonate with someone even beyond death.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what to say about Boo. It’s such a textured, multi-layered story, and I feel that if I read it again, I will parse something new each time. There’s not much going on in the plot, yet so much more happening between the lines, such that any pithy phrase I’d choose to describe it feels inadequate. I don’t even know how I feel about this book. I just know that it made me think, and that several days after I’ve turned the last page, I’m still thinking.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | When Everything Feels like the Movies, Raziel Reid

24043806When Everything Feels like the Movies is an unbelievably raw, powerful book. Reading this book is a visceral experience, and I almost didn’t write this review because there is no way I can express the power of Raziel Reid’s writing. He plunges us deep into the mind and heart of his narrator Jude, and creates such a rich, textured voice for his character that Jude will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Jude is a hilarious narrator whose humour belies the depth of his experiences and pain. A young teen bullied for being gay, Jude copes by imagining himself a movie star. Boys chase him and call him Judy because they are rabid fans. Graffiti about him on bathroom doors are notes from secret admirers. Classmates stare at his outfits and made-up face because the school hallways are actually red carpet premieres and he’s the star. It’s a comforting fiction that crumbles with the first punch, even as he desperately attempts to cling to it. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment, he scrambles to his feet and races away from a group of bullies, describing all the while how he is really acting out a lush, beautiful scene from a movie.

The reason this book is so powerful is the language. Take this passage about bathroom graffiti for example:

They made portraits of me, too. They were my graffiti tabloids. I was totally famous. I’d imagine that the drawing in the handicap stall of my alleged crotch with “Hermafrodite Jude/Judy” scribbled next to it was the cover of the National Enquirer. Misspelled headline included. I was addicted to them. I’d look all over the bathroom and on all the walls in the hallway, and if there wasn’t one waiting for me on my locker for Jim to paint over at the end of the day, I was crushed. I wanted them to hate me; hate was as close to love as I thought I’d ever be. [p. 18]

Passages like that just blow me away. I mean, wow. The studied casualness of stating a desire for this graffiti, contrasted with the subtle dig at the spelling error, and then wrapped up at the end with an almost off-hand remark. Reid manages to pack more sincerity in that final sentence than in the rest of the paragraph, yet the emotion in that last line can be felt throughout, even as Jude pretends otherwise. Bravo, Raziel Reid, is all I can say.

Then Jude falls in love, with a popular boy who happens to be straight. If you know the author’s inspiration for this story, then you already know how that turns out. If you don’t, then I urge you to avoid spoilers at all costs. The ending seemed sudden to me and I thought it came out of nowhere. But I can imagine that’s how it would have seemed in real life as well, especially as Reid keeps us firmly locked within Jude’s perspective.

The controversy around the content of this book has brought it to the attention of many more readers, but it has also almost eclipsed discussion about the book itself, which I think is a shame. Read it to take a stand against censorship, if you like, but also read it just because it’s a very, very good book. Jude is a star, and his story will pull you right in and never let you go.

Review | Something Wiki, Suzanne Sutherland

20860645Something Wiki is about a shy twelve year old named Jo, who has three brainy friends and edits Wikipedia for fun. When two of her friends suddenly decide they’re too cool for her, Jo has to deal with a situation unfortunately all too familiar with many young girls. Add to the mix a twenty-four year old brother moving back home with his pregnant girlfriend, and Jo’s dealing with quite a bit to handle.

Sutherland does a great job of capturing a young girl’s voice, and her writing took me right back to my days as a tween. I remember being like Jo — Wikipedia wasn’t around back then so I had to scribble my feelings in an actual paper journal, but I can certainly relate to her worries about bad hair cuts, monstrous zits, and not quite fitting in with friends who are finding new interests. Kudos to Sutherland for giving Jo a real acne problem, rather than the usual trope in movies of otherwise beautiful girls freaking out over a single pimple. The story feels real, and Jo is a sharp, witty narrator. Her sardonic asides give way to real pain though, and it’s almost painful to read about how cruel young girls can be.

I lent my copy to my sister after reading, and about halfway through, she asked me if Chloe (Jo’s best-friend-turned-kinda-mean-girl) ever gets her comeuppance. Unfortunately, Sutherland ends the story before the girls enter high school, which means we never get to see if Chloe gets major zits before the prom or ends up unable to land her dream job after university. There is some closure, but as in real life, things aren’t completely wrapped up in a tidy little package. The book does give a glimpse of hope, however — J, the girlfriend of Jo’s brother, is the cool older sister type who wears awesome outfits and is beyond caring what others think of her. Attitude-wise, she’s who Jo can grow up to become, and both provides emotional support and a reminder that things do get better.

Despite being in the title, the Wikipedia angle almost seems unnecessary. Perhaps it will resonate on a different level with contemporary tweens, but it  mostly just reminds me of those Baby-sitter Club notebook chapter introductions.

Something Wiki is fantastic realistic YA. It’s much tighter — plot-wise and style-wise — than Sutherland’s first novel, and is sure to resonate with many young girls and women who remember all too well the pains of growing up.

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Thank you to Dundurn for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | (You) Set Me on Fire, Mariko Tamaki

20622284Remember being seventeen and in love with someone you knew was bad for you? In (You) Set Me on Fire, when seventeen year old Allison Lee enters college, she has been in love once (disastrously), burned twice (literally), and appears headed for yet another romantic disaster. She finds herself drawn to beautiful classmate Shar, who soon becomes the centre of Allison’s universe.

As an adult, I immediately found Shar pretentious (the “too cool” outsider who looks down upon other students), and later emotionally manipulative and utterly messed up. I honestly didn’t understand the appeal, when there were perfectly nice classmates like former cheerleader Carly who were inviting Allison to join them in various activities. However, thinking back to myself as a teenager, I have to admit Allison’s decisions may not have been so far-fetched as I’d like to think.

Tamaki is fantastic at capturing the teenage voice. Allison sounds like a teenager without the usual Clueless/Valley girl trappings of authors trying too hard to sound young. Allison sounds smart, and more than that, funny. Here is a story about a girl heading into a toxic relationship, who’s had some problems with fire, and who feels she doesn’t quite fit in with others her age — and it’s funny! This is not to diminish everything Allison is going through — at times, her encounters with Shar and her flashbacks to her previous romantic disaster (high school classmate Anne), are almost painful to read because the emotions are so raw. But the narrative as a whole is laced with sardonic humour, and that, combined with an ever-present undercurrent of raw vulnerability, makes Allison’s story so powerful.

Take a look at this passage for example, shortly after Allison enters college and realizes her classmates there know nothing about her or her past:

So for a brief moment in time I was in the freshman threshold of opportunity: the people around me knew only what I’d told them about myself, Nothing more. They’d had almost no time to formulate an opinion for themselves and no one was around to inform them of anything different from what I said or what I did. If I smiled and giggled at their jokes, I could be a happy-go-lucky person. If I slept with the first boy I laid eyes on, I could be a slut. I could even get in a fight and be a loose cannon or a bully.

The world was my oyster. [p. 38]

I remember that moment of opportunity, that moment when I could completely reinvent myself, redefine who I’ve become. It happens every now and then, with a new school or a new job or even a new city. It’s exhilarating, and a great part of figuring out who you want to become. That moment of hope, so early in Allison’s story, is particularly poignant as we read on, and realize she’s falling into an old pattern, and that this too is a familiar experience for anyone trying to reinvent themselves.

The brilliance of Tamaki’s writing is evident even in the title, which is possibly one of my favourite book titles ever. The parenthesis create a dual layer of meaning, with both layers somewhat at odds with each other. The declarative, almost accusatory romantic statement “You set me on fire” is in tension with the directive “Set me on fire,” which could be either a demand or a plea. This subtlety is carried through with her use of fire as a metaphor, a somewhat overused symbol for passion, yet in Tamaki’s hands it feels fresh. From Allison’s scar to escalating incidents with fire in the story to the striking allusions to history and mythology, fire is woven through the narrative in a masterful way that is overt without, to my mind, ever being over the top.

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I made a pledge in 2015 to read books by Asian American women writers, based on a list compiled by Celeste Ng. Mariko Tamaki isn’t on the list, but this book happened to catch my eye in a shop, and I’m glad it did. If you happen to be joining me on this pledge, I highly recommend you add this to your list as well.

Review | After, Anna Todd

22557520Anna Todd’s After is a classic “good girl meets bad boy” love story that began as a fan fiction romance about teen heartthrob Harry Styles (of British boy band One Direction). It became such an online phenomenon that the story has since published by traditional book publisher Simon and Schuster and movie rights have been optioned.

After is a fun, entertaining read, and I zipped through the book in a weekend. Hardin (the Harry Styles character, renamed for publication) is definitely not my choice in boyfriend, whether literary or real life, but I think that’s just me being old. I can imagine teenage me going gooey at his broody grouchiness. As Anna Todd said when I met her at Indigo, there’s something undeniably attractive about being the one woman special enough to make the bad boy want to change. And indeed, as with TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, Wuthering Heights , Pride and Prejudice and other such influences for this book, in After, bad boy Hardin falls for good girl Tessa and finds the impetus to change his ways.

As a hero, Hardin insults Tessa, smirks a lot (though nowhere near as much as Edward Cullen) and acts like he’s too cool for practically everything. I had been dreading a controlling, abusive bad boy type, but he struck me more as bratty than abusive. The romance and their arguments felt immature, more Sweet Valley High than Fifty Shades of Grey, and it was more amusing than anything.

To Anna Todd’s credit, Tessa isn’t the precious snowflake that Bella Swan and Ana Steele are. She’s a young, innocent girl who is so prim and proper at the beginning that even I wanted to tell her to loosen up. She’s a realistic character, even with her odd quirk of setting alarms for every single bit of her day, but her personality shift happened much too quickly. The odd quirk of setting multiple alarms was abandoned fairly early on, and while she never turned into a Jessica Wakefield, she still felt like a completely different person a few chapters into the story.

To be honest, the turbulence of their relationship didn’t bother me as much as the fairy tale nature of Tessa’s internship. Minor spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: she lands a dream internship at a publishing company thanks to Hardin’s family connections (shades of Fifty Shades here). Thing is, the internship is so good that it stretches credulity past the breaking point — it’s paid, for one, and despite the job being just a part-time internship, the pay is enough for rent. Also, Tessa gets her own computer, her own phone line and her own office. Then, during her first day, the head of the company gives her a stack of manuscript submissions and tells her to send on to him any manuscripts she thinks worth publishing, and to throw away any that she doesn’t like. Seriously? I’ve never worked in publishing, so there may be some truth to this, for all I know. But I doubt it. Now, granted, a lot of my response is sour grapes at not having my own office, but well, even a wish fulfillment fantasy should have some credence of believability, no?

That being said, the romance was entertaining to read. There were some troubling aspects, but again, I think Hardin’s brand of bad boy was just too immature for me to really get into. Tessa’s jealousy over Hardin’s past relationships leads to some pretty stupid decisions, but again, it all feels very high schoolish. I generally like YA, and I know there are adult fans of this story. I’m just not one of them — I think I’m just too curmudgeonly and at multiple times wanted to tell the characters to grow up. But I did enjoy reading the book, and I even might pick up the next book in the series for a snowy weekend.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Author Encounter | Anna Todd, at Indigo Green Room Eaton Centre

22557520With the success of Fifty Shades of Grey (originally Twilight fanfiction) and the Mortal Instruments series (which allegedly began as Harry Potter fanfiction), the success of Anna Todd’s After series should come as no surprise. Originally published on Wattpad as fanfiction of British boyband One Direction, After received millions of views and was eventually picked up by Simon and Schuster for traditional publishing.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Anna in the Indigo Green Room before her signing last Wednesday. I hadn’t read the After series on Wattpad and new little beyond the fact that it starred Harry Styles and had millions of fans online, and I was interested in finding out more.

In brief, After is about innocent college freshman Tessa falling in love with bad boy older student Hardin. Their relationship is a classic good girl/bad boy romance, with Tessa’s goodness making Hardin want to reform.

Fellow blogger Hayley commented that the relationship between Tessa and Hardin was “so toxic, but I couldn’t stop reading!” Anna admitted that their relationship was indeed toxic, but pointed out that it’s fiction. She brought up an interesting point about what we look for in book boyfriends versus real life boyfriends. Readers want some level of difficulty in book boyfriends, she says, without necessarily wanting it in real life. She spoke about the popularity of the bad boy trope and pointed out that the idea of a boy wanting to change for the better, for the sake of a girl he loves, is attractive. Anna was quick to point out that most readers distinguish between the fantasy of this within fiction, and what we actually look for in real life. “I wouldn’t want my husband to treat me like [Hardin treats Tessa],” she said. Yet fiction is a safe place to indulge these fantasies, and allow ourselves to fall for a boy who would be better for no reason other than love for us, and us alone.

Anna says that After is “a combination of all these things I love.” Beyond the hero being originally inspired by Harry Styles, Anna’s love of the Fifty Shades trilogy is also reflected in Hardin and Tessa’s romance. Another influences include Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice (an early scene between Hardin and Tessa closely resembles Elizabeth and Darcy’s first encounter at a party).

Meeting Anna at the Indigo Green Room, Eaton Centre

Meeting Anna at the Indigo Green Room, Eaton Centre

The transition from Wattpad fanfiction to published novels was very smooth, which Anna credits to her editor at Simon and Schuster. She views the published version as a definite improvement to the unpolished original. Awkward phrases and grammatical errors were smoothed out, and the story expanded to add complexity to certain characters.

Despite her positive experience with traditional publishing, Anna maintains loyalty to the Wattpad community, and asserts her thankfulness at the support of the online community. She particularly loves the constant stream of feedback from readers that Wattpad provides. When working with her Simon and Schuster editor, Anna admits the switch from crowdsourced editing to editing by a single person felt odd, and that, in order to mimic the Wattpad environment, her editor gave more detailed edits than he usually would.

After has since been picked up for a movie deal, and we naturally asked Anna about who she sees in the roles. She says Indiana Evans is far and away the definitive choice for Tessa in her mind. For Hardin, she thinks Douglas Booth would be a great choice, and she would love to see Ansel Elgort as Landon (a classic good boy and friend to Tessa). For Zed (a friend of Hardin’s whom fellow blogger Hayley describes as “the Wickham” in the series), Anna admits that he was originally based on Zane from One Direction, and in her mind, she still can’t think of anyone else in the role.

Just a small section of the long line awaiting Anna's book signing at Indigo Eaton Centre

Just a small section of the long line awaiting Anna’s book signing at Indigo Eaton Centre

What’s Anna working on now? Other than publicity for this title and writing the fourth book in the series, she’s also expanding on a story about Landon’s romance with someone (I can’t remember the name and can’t find it on Google, but Hayley, who’d read the entire series on Wattpad, was really excited to hear this, so I think fans of the series will be thrilled). The next two books will be published by Simon and Schuster over the next couple of months, and Anna highly recommends waiting for the published versions — Simon and Schuster’s editing has smoothed out the rough edges, and the stories have been expanded for print. As well, Anna says that she may change the ending of the entire series for the print version, just because of the way the characters and storylines have developed in print.

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As an aside and possibly minor, but to my mind important, note about my feelings on celebrity fanfiction in general: while I have few reservations about fanfiction on fictional characters getting mainstream recognition, the idea of fanfiction about real people does make me very uncomfortable. Not that I’ve never fantasized about celebrities, but to actually make these fantasies public seems to me somehow a violation of those celebrities’ boundaries. All that to say that the origin of After makes me uncomfortable not because of its plot or any pre-formed opinion about the quality of fanfiction, but because of its use of a real celebrity as the hero.

I did receive a copy of this book for review, and will put aside my reservations about its origin and celebrity fanfiction in general as I read it. Just a thought, and if celebrity fanfiction becomes more of a trend, I’d love to know what the rest of you think about it.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for the opportunity to meet and speak with Anna Todd.

Blog Tour | Review: Gottika, Helaine Becker

9781770863910Helaine Becker’s Gottika is a powerful retelling of an old Jewish legend about the golem, a magical humanoid being made from clay who is brought to life to protect Jewish towns from anti-semitic attacks. The world that Becker creates in Gottika bears many similarities to Panem and other contemporary YA dystopias, but the reference to Jewish legend turns the into an unsettling allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Fifteen year old Dany is a Stoon, in Western Gottika where Stoons are treated as second class citizens and killed for no reason under the tyrannical rule of Count Pol. Unrest is brewing, and Dany’s father must decide if he must stop trying to keep a low profile and use the secret knowledge he possesses to bring clay to life and transform it into a weapon against Count Pol.

There’s a lot going on in Gottika, multiple plot threads that, though resolved, rarely ever take off. What’s the “staring sickness”, why do all the families in town only have one child each, why is Count Pol kidnapping teenage girls? The final question in particular does have a pretty big significance in the story, but the question feels so tangential, and buried beneath so many other plot points, throughout the story that the payoff feels disjointed.

More powerful are the encounters between Stoons and Count Pol’s soldiers. In one particularly memorable scene, Dany and his father are swimming when soldiers order them out of the water and castigate them for not wearing their hats. The casual injustice, coupled with Dany and his father’s powerlessness to resist, is difficult to read. In another scene, soldiers storm Dany’s house to confiscate his family’s books. The novel breaks from text narration then, switching over to graphics and demonstrating how some horrors are beyond just words.

While more of the main characters are male, I love that the female characters seem to have more complex motivations for their actions. While most teenage girls fear being kidnapped by Count Pol, Dany’s cousin Dalil welcomes it. She is attracted by Pol’s lifestyle, and manages to turn a blind eye to his faults. Later in the story, she is forced to face the truth of Pol’s tyranny, and becomes instrumental in the resistance against it. I love her character arc, how her desire for comfort initially outweighs her loyalty to her people, until she is forced to realize just how much she is condoning by her actions. Dany’s mother as well, quiet and unassuming at first, later reveals a dark secret she’s had to live with for many years. In contrast to Dany and his father’s more traditional heroic roles, I love the nuances and  questions raised by Dalil and Dany’s mother’s more problematic arcs.

The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to discuss, particularly in fiction for children. Gottika isn’t exactly a simple allegory for that, but it does speak to the oppression experienced by certain groups of people. The story is futuristic, but the tone is that of a classic fairy tale. There’s a timelessness to Dany’s story, and despite the supernatural elements, the sense that there have been, and continue to be, far too many Count Pols throughout history.

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Thank you to Dancing Cat Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.